A few of us with an interest in South Africa went to the Barbican Pit to see Yael Farber’s reworking of the Oresteia, based in Homer’s story of the doomed house of Atreus and taken up by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Yael’s Clytemnestra is a damaged, unrepentant white woman (the only white character) who has revelled in axing to death Agamemnon, the husband who killed her first baby, brutalised and raped her, made her his wife and sacrified their daughter Iphigenia to Artemis for victory against Troy. Clytemnestra has married his cousin Aegisthus and the future of her son Orestes and daughter Electra, potential avengers, have become doubtful. Electra has secretly placed Orestes out of danger with a mountain tribe but herself remains “a slave in her father’s house”, nursing her bitterness, dreaming of revenge and subject to brutal episodes of torture at the hands of her deranged mother. 17 years later Orestes returns as avenger. In the original work he kills his mother and for this crime of matricide is pursued and tortured by the Furies. In Yael’s version, Orestes and Electra are pulled back – Orestes by his own conscience, wailing Electra by the chorus of seven older Xhosa older women who remove the axe, pin her down and comfort her. Orestes and Electra are reconciled with Clytemnestra. Events are witnessed and accompanied by the chorus who sing, whistle, stamp, drum and pluck a Xhosa musical accompaniment.
Having averted the unabsolvable crime of matricide the chorus, who stand for South Africans humiliated by apartheid, marshal themselves in Xhosa with a firm, rousing oration and response. In the play’s final lines Clytemnestra delivers her judgment on white South Africa: “We who made the sons and daughters of this land servants in the halls of their forefathers, we know we are only here by grace.”
Afterwards Yael Farber answered questions. It emerged that the Xhosa chorus, who indeed didn’t look as if they had been to stage school, moreover don’t understand English and rehearsals were mediated by a translater. She talked about the act grace on the part of the majority population at the end of apartheid which allowed white people to remain and keep their property. To a question about why she had dealt so sympathetically with Clytemnestra, whose own suffering, being manifest, interfered with the urge to blame her, Farber had some brave and interesting answers. She said that she didn’t accept the idea of protagonists and antagonists. The questioner was not satisfied, and Farber had to defend her refusal to simplify, and therefore caricature, the apartheid regime – she said to the questioner “It’s a very difficult thing you’re asking” because the acts of apartheid are themselves indefensible – but the problem is that it takes enormous self-belief and feelings of righteousness to torture and kill, and that this cannot be ignored. She said that the Truth and Reconciliation commission is only the beginning and that demands for reparation will understandably come in the future.